Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 5, No. 31, May, 1860
Author: Various
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"In a new channel fair and evenly."

He found an equally hot-headed Glendower, wherever there was an educated man, ready with the answer,—

"Not wind? it shall; it must; you see it doth."

"You see it doth" is an argument whose force no theorist ever takes into his reckoning.

We said that the title "American Dictionary of the English Language" was an absurdity. Fancy a "Cuban Dictionary of the Spanish Language." It would be of value only to the comparative philologist, curious in the changes of meaning, pronunciation, and the like, which circumstances are always bringing about in languages subjected to new conditions of life and climate. But we must not forget to say that the title chosen by Dr. Webster conveyed also a meaning creditable to his spirit and judgment. He always stoutly maintained the right of English as spoken in America to all the privileges of a living language. In opposition to the purists who would have clasped the language forever within the covers of Johnson, he insisted on the necessity of coining new words or adapting old ones to express new things and new relations. It is many years since we read his "Remarks" (if that was the title) on Pickering's "Vocabulary," and in answer to the rather supercilious criticisms on himself in the "Anthology"; but the impression left on our mind by that pamphlet is one of great respect for the good sense, acuteness, and courage of its author. And of his Dictionary it may safely be said, that, with all its mistakes, no work of the kind had then appeared so learned and so comprehensive. It may be doubted if any living language possessed at that time a dictionary, or one, at least, the work of a single man, in all respects its equal.

But etymologies are not the most important part of a good working dictionary, the intention of which is not to inform readers and writers what a word may have meant before the Dispersion, but what it means now. The pedigree of an adjective or substantive is of little consequence to ninety-nine men in a hundred, and the writers who have wielded our mother-tongue with the greatest mastery have been men who knew what words had most meaning to their neighbors and acquaintances, and did not stay their pens to ask what ideas the radicals of those words may possibly have conveyed to the mind of a bricklayer going up from Padanaram to seek work on the Tower of Babel. A thoroughly good etymological dictionary of English is yet to seek; and even if we should ever get one, it will be for students, and not for the laity. Nor is it the primary object of a common dictionary to trace the history of the language. Of great interest and importance to scholars, it is of comparatively little to Smith and Brown and their children at the public school. It is a work apart, which we hope to see accomplished by the London Philological Society in a manner worthy of comparison with what has been partly done for German by the brothers Grimm,—alas that the illustrious duality should have been broken by death! A lexicon of that kind should be an index to all the more eminent books in the language; but we do not hold this to be the office of a dictionary for daily reference. A dictionary that should embrace every unusual word, every new compound, every metaphorical turn of meaning, to be found in our great writers, would be a compendium of the genius of our authors rather than of our language; and a lexicographer who rakes the books of second and third-rate men for out-of-the-way phrases is doing us no favor. A dictionary is not a drag-net to bring up for us the broken pots and dead kittens, the sewerage of speech, as well as its living fishes. Nor do we think it a fair test of such a work, that one should seek in it for every odd word that may have tickled his fancy in a favorite author. Like most middle-aged readers, we have our specially private volumes. One of these—but we will not betray the secret of our loves—contains some rare words, such as the Gallicism mistresse-piece, and the delightful hybrid pundonnore for trifling points-of-honor; yet we by no means complain that we can find neither of them in Worcester, and only the former (with a ludicrously mistaken definition) in Webster.

A conclusive reason with us for preferring Dr. Worcester's Dictionary is, that its author has properly understood his functions, and has aimed to give us a true view of English as it is, and not as he himself may have wished it should be or thought it ought to he. Its etymologies are sufficient for the ordinary reader,—sometimes superfluously full, as where the same word is given over and over again in cognate languages. We do not see the use, under the word PLAIN, of taking up room with a list like the following: "L. planus; It. piano; Sp. piano; Fr. plain." Not content with this, Dr. Worcester gives it once more under PLAN: "L. planus, flat; It. piano, a plan; Sp. piano; Fr. plan.—Dut., Ger., Dan., and Sw. plan." Even yet we have not done with it, for under PLANE we find "L. planus; It. piano; Sp.plano, Fr. plan." One would think this rather a Polyglot Lexicon than an English Dictionary. It seems to us that no Romanic derivative of the Latin root should he given, unless to show that the word has come into English by that channel. And so of the Teutonic languages. If we have Danish, Swedish, German, and Dutch, why not Scotch, Icelandic, Frisic, Swiss, and every other conceivable dialectic variety?

Another fault of superfluousness we find in the number of compounded words, where the meaning is obvious,—such, for instance, as are formed with the adverb out, which the genius of the language permits without limit in the case of verbs. Dr. Worcester gives us, among many others,—

"OUT-BABBLE, v. a. To surpass in Idle prattle; to exceed in babbling. Milton."

"OUT-BELLOW, v. a. To bellow more or louder than; to exceed or surpass in bellowing. Bp. Hall."

"OUT-BLEAT, v. a. To bleat more than; to exceed in bleating. Bp. Hall."

"OUT-BRAG, v. a. To surpass in bragging. Shak."

"OUT-BRIBE, v, a. To exceed in bribing. Blair."

"OUT-BURN, v. a. To exceed in burning. Young." [The definition here is hardly complete; since the word means also to burn longer than.]

"OUT-CANT, v. a. To surpass in canting. Pope."

"OUT-CHEAT, v. a. To surpass in cheating."

"OUT-CURSE, v. a. To surpass in cursing."

"OUT-DRINK, v. a. To exceed in drinking. Donne."

"OUT-FAWN, v. a. To excel in fawning. Hudibras."

"OUT-FEAT, v. a. To surpass in feats. Smart."

"OUT-FLASH, v. a. To surpass in flashing. Clarke."

Similar words occur at frequent intervals through nine columns. Dr. Webster is equally relentless, (even roping in a few estrays in his Appendix,) and we hardly know which has out-worded the other. We were surprised to find in neither the useful and legitimate substantive form of outgo, as the opposite of income. This superfluousness (unless we apply Voltaire's saying, "Le superflu, chose bien necessaire" to dictionaries also) is the result, we suppose, of the rivalry of publishers, who have done their best to persuade the public that numerosity is the chief excellence in works of this kind, and that whoever buys their particular quarto may be sure of an honest pennyworth and of owning a thousand or two more words than his less judicious neighbors. In this way a false standard is manufactured, to which the lexicographer must conform, if he would have a remunerative sale for his book. He accordingly explores every lane and impasse in the purlieus of Grub Street, and pounces on a new word as a naturalist would on a new bug,—the stranger and uglier, the better. We regret that this kind of rivalry has been forced on Dr. Worcester; but he is so thorough, patient, and conscientious, that he leaves little behind him for the gleaner. We confess that the amplitude of his research has surprised us, highly as we were prepared to rate him in this respect by our familiarity with his former works. We have subjected his Dictionary to a pretty severe test. From the time of its publication we have made a point of seeking in it every unusual word, old or new, that we met with in our reading. We have been disappointed in hardly a single instance, and we are not acquainted with any other dictionary of which we could say as much.

An attempt has been made to damage Dr. Worcester's work by a partial comparison of his definitions with those of Dr. Webster; and here, again, the assumption has been, that number was of more importance than concise completeness. In the case of a quarto dictionary, we suppose an honest reviewer may confess that he has not read through the subject of his criticism. We have opened Dr. Webster's volume at random, and have found some of his definitions as extraordinarily inaccurate as many of his etymologies. They quite justify a double-entendre of Daniel Webster's, which we heard him utter many years ago in court. He had forced such a meaning upon some word in a paper connected with the case on trial, that the opposing counsel interrupted him to ask in what dictionary he found the word so defined. He silenced his questioner instantly with a happy play upon the name common to himself and the lexicographer: "In Webster's Dictionary, Sir!" We find in Webster, for example, the following definition of a word as to whose meaning he could have been set right by any coasting-skipper that sailed out of New Haven:—

"AMID-SHIPS; in marine language, the middle of a ship with regard to her length and breadth." Now, when one ship runs into another at sea and strikes her amid-ships, how is she to contrive to accomplish it so as to satisfy the requirements of this definition? Or if a sailor is said to be standing amidships, must he be planted precisely in what he would probably agree with Dr. Webster in spelling the center of the main-hatch? Dr. Worcester, quoting Falconer, is of course right.

We give another of Dr. Webster's definitions, which caught our eye in looking over his array of words compounded with out. "OUTWARD-BOUND; proceeding from a port or country." Now Dr. Webster does not tell his readers that the term is exclusively applicable to vessels; and we should like to know whence a vessel is likely to proceed, unless from a port,—and where ports are commonly situated, unless in countries? If an American ship be "proceeding from" the port of Liverpool to some port in the United States, how soon does she enter on what lexicographers call "the state of being" homeward-bound? The narrow limits to which Dr. Webster confines the word would not extend beyond the jaws of the harbor from which the ship is sailing. Dr. Worcester's definition is, "OUTWARD-BOUND. (Naut.) Bound outward or to foreign parts. Crabb."

Under the word MORESQUE we find in Webster the following definition: "A species of painting or carving done after the Moorish manner, consisting of grotesque pieces and compartments promiscuously interspersed; arabesque. Gwilt." (The Italics are our own.) We have not Mr. Gwilt's Encyclopaedia at hand; but if this be a fair representation of one of its definitions, it is a very untrustworthy authority. The last term to be applied to arabesque-work is grotesque, or promiscuously interspersed; and the description here given leaves out the most beautiful kind of arabesque, namely, the inlaid work of geometrical figures in colored marbles, in which the Arabs far surpassed the older opus Alexandrinum. Nothing could be less grotesque, less promiscuously interspersed, or more beautiful in its harmonious variety, than the work of this kind in the famous Capella Reale at Palermo.

Dr. Webster defines NIGHT-PIECE as "a piece of painting so colored as to be supposed seen by candle-light,"—a description which we suspect would have somewhat puzzled Gherardo della Notte.

We might give other instances, had we time and space; but our object is not to depreciate Webster, but only to show that the claim set up for him of superior exactness in definition is altogether gratuitous. We have found no inaccuracies comparable with these in Dr. Worcester's Dictionary, which we tried in precisely the same way, by opening it here and there at random. Moreover, looking at his work, not absolutely, but in comparison with Dr. Webster's, (as we are challenged to do,) we cannot leave out of view that the former is a first edition, while the latter has had the advantage of repeated revisions.

Under the word MAGDALEN, we find Webster superior to Worcester. Under ULAN, we find them both wrong. Dr. Worcester says it means "a species of militia among the modern Tartars"; and Dr. Webster, "a certain description of militia among the modern Tartars." In any Polish dictionary they would have found the word defined as meaning "lancer," and the Uhlans in the Austrian army can hardly be described as modern Tartar militia. Both Dictionaries give SLAW, and neither explains it rightly. The word does not properly belong in an English dictionary, unless as an American provincialism of very narrow range. As such, it will be found, properly defined, in Mr. Bartlett's excellent Vocabulary. Lexicographers who so often cite the Dutch equivalents of English words should own Dutch dictionaries. Under IMAGINATION, a good kind of test-word, we find Worcester much superior to Webster, especially in illustrative citations.

We have been astonished by some instances of slovenly writing to be found here and there in Dr. Webster's Dictionary, because he was capable of writing pure and vigorous English. Under MAGAZINE (and by the way, Dr. Webster's definition omits altogether the metaphorical sense of the word) we read that "The first publication of this bind in England was the Gentleman's Magazine, which first appeared in 1731, under the name of Sylvanus Urban, by Edward Cave, and which is still continued." A reader who knew nothing about the facts would be puzzled to say what the name of the new periodical really was, whether Gentleman's Magazine or Sylvanus Urban; and a reader who knew little about English would be led to think that "appeared by" was equivalent to "was commenced by," unless, indeed, he came to the conclusion that its apparition took place in the neighborhood of some cavern known by the name of Edward.

We have only a word to say as to the illustrations, as they are called, a mistaken profuseness in which disfigures both Dictionaries, another evil result of bookselling competition. The greater part of them, especially those in Webster, are fitter for a child's scrap-book than for a volume intended to go into a student's library. Such adjuncts seem to us allowable only, if at all, somewhat as they were introduced by Blunt in his "Glossographia," to make terms of heraldry more easily comprehensible. They might be admitted to save trouble in describing geometrical figures, or in explaining certain of the more frequently occurring terms in architecture and mechanics, but beyond this they are childish. The publishers of Webster give us all the coats-of-arms of the States of the American Union, among other equally impertinent woodcuts. We enter a protest against the whole thing, as an equally unfair imputation on the taste and the standard of judgment of intelligent Americans. If we must have illustrations, let them be strictly so, and not primer-pictures. Both Dictionaries give us the figure of a crossbow, for instance, as if there could be anywhere a boy of ten years old who did not know the implement, at least under its other name of bow-gun. Neither cut would give the slightest notion of the thing as a weapon, nor of the mode in which it was wound up and let off. Dr. Worcester says that it was intended "for shooting arrows," which is not strictly correct, since the proper name of the missile it discharged was bolt,—something very unlike the shaft used by ordinary bowmen.

We believe Dr. Worcester's Dictionary to be the most complete and accurate of any hitherto published. He intrudes no theories of his own as to pronunciation or orthography, but cites the opinions of the best authorities, and briefly adds his own where there is occasion. He is no bigot for the present spelling of certain classes of words, but gives them, as he should do, in the way they are written by educated men, at the same time expressing his belief that the drift of the language is toward a change, wherever he thinks such to be the case. We reprobate, in the name of literary decency, the methods which have been employed to give an unfair impression of his work, as if it had been compiled merely to supplant Webster, and as if the whole matter were a question of blind partisanship and prejudice. The assigning of such motives as these, even by implication, to such men, among many others, as Mr. Marsh and Mr. Bryant, both of whom have expressed themselves in favor of the new Dictionary, is an insult to American letters. Mr. Marsh, by the extent of his learning, is probably better qualified than any other man in America to pronounce judgment in such a case; and Mr. Bryant has not left it doubtful that he knows what pure and vigorous English is, whether in verse or prose, or that he could not employ it except to maintain a well-grounded conviction.

Apart from more general considerations, there are several reasons which would induce us to prefer Dr. Worcester's Dictionary. It has the great advantage, not only that it is constructed on sounder principles, as it seems to us, but that it is the latest. Stereotyping is an unfortunate invention, when it tends to perpetuate error or incompleteness, and already the Appendix of added words in Webster amounts to eighty pages. For all the words it contains, accordingly, the reader is put to double pains: he must first search the main body of the work, and then the supplement. Again, in Worcester, the synonymes are given, each under its proper head, in the main work; in Webster they form a separate treatise. One other advantage of Worcester would be conclusive with us, even were other things equal,—and that is the size of the type, and the greater clearness of the page, owing to the freshness of the stereotype-plates.

We know the inadequacy of such hand-to-mouth criticism as that of a monthly reviewer must be upon works demanding so minute an examination as a dictionary deserves. For ourselves, we should wish to own both Webster and Worcester, but, if we could possess only one, we should choose the latter. It is a monument to the industry, judgment, and accuracy of the author, of which he may well be proud.

Elements of Mechanics, for the Use of Colleges, Academies, and High Schools. By WILLIAM G. PECK, Professor of Mathematics, Columbia College. New York: A.S. Barnes & Burr. 1859.

Text-books on Mechanics are of three sorts. Many teachers, school-committees, and parents wish to add a taste of Mechanics to the smatterings of twenty or thirty different subjects which constitute "liberal education," as understood in American high schools and colleges. For this purpose it is of the first importance that the text-book should be brief, for the time to be devoted to it is very short; secondly, it must divest the subject of every perplexity and difficulty, that it may be readily understood by all young persons, though of small capacity and less application. Such a text-book can contain nothing beyond the statement, without proof, of the more important principles, illustrated by familiar examples, and simple explanations of the commonest phenomena of motion, and of the machines and mechanical forces used in the arts. To a few it seems that more light comes into a room through two or three broad windows, though they be all on one side, than through fifty bull's-eyes, scattered on every wall. But the many prefer bull's-eyes,—fifty narrow, distorted glimpses in as many directions, rather than a broad, clear view of the heavens and the earth in one direction. Hence superficial, scanty text-books on science are the only ones which are popular and salable.

The thorough study of Mechanics is, or should be, an essential part of the training of an architect, an engineer, or a machinist; and there are several text-books, like Weisbach's Mechanics and Engineering, intended for students preparing for any of these professions, which are complete mathematical treatises upon the subject. Such text-books are invaluable; they become standard works, and win for their authors a well-deserved reputation.

Professor Peck's book belongs to neither of the two classes of text-books indicated, but to a class intermediate between the two. It is at once too good, too difficult a book for general, popular use, and too incomplete for the purposes of the professional student. As it assumes that the student is already acquainted with the elements of Algebra, Trigonometry, Analytic Geometry, and the Calculus, the successful use of this text-book in the general classes of any academy or college will be good evidence that the Mathematics are there taught more thoroughly than is usual in this country. In few American colleges is the study of the Calculus required of all students. In preparing a scientific text-book of this sort, originality is neither aimed at nor required. A judicious selection of materials, correct translation from the excellent French and German hand-books, with such changes in the notation as will better adapt it for American use, and a clear, logical arrangement are the chief merits of such a treatise; and these are merits which seldom gain much praise, though their absence would expose the author to censure. The definitions of Professor Peck's book are exact and concise, every proposition is rigidly demonstrated, and the illustrations and descriptions are brief, pointed, and intelligible. Professor Peck says in the Preface, that the book was prepared "to supply a want felt by the author when engaged in teaching Natural Philosophy to college classes"; but surely a teacher who prepares a text-book for his own classes must need a double share of patience and zeal. Every error which the book contains will be exposed, and the author will have ample opportunity to repent of all the inaccuracies which may have crept into his work. Again, the instructor who uses his own text-book encounters, besides the inevitable monotony of teaching the same subject year after year, the additional weariness of finding in the pages of his text-book no mind but his own, which he has read so often and with so little satisfaction. Even in teaching Mechanics, there is no exception to the general rule, that two heads are better than one.

* * * * *

Stories from Famous Ballads. For Children. By GRACE GREENWOOD, Author of "History of my Pets," "Merrie England," etc., etc. With Illustrations by BILLINGS. Boston: Ticknor & Fields.

All "famous ballads" are so close to Nature in their conceptions, emotions, incidents, and expressions, that it seems hardly possible to change their form without losing their soul. The present little volume proves that they may be turned into prose stories for children, and yet preserve much of the vitality of their sentiment and the interest of their narrative. Grace Greenwood, well known for her previous successes in writing works for the young, has contrived in this, her most difficult task, to combine simplicity with energy and richness of diction, and to present the events and characters of the Ballads in the form best calculated to fill the youthful imagination and kindle the youthful love of action and adventure. Among the subjects are Patient Griselda, The King of France's Daughter, Chevy Chase, The Beggar's Daughter of Bednall Green, Sir Patrick Spens, and Auld Robin Gray. Much of the author's success in giving prose versions of these, without making them prosaic, is due to the intense admiration she evidently feels for the originals. Among American children's books, this volume deserves a high place.

* * * * *

Mary Staunton; or the Pupils of Marvel Hall. By the Author of "Portraits of, my Married Friends." New York: D. Appleton & Co.

This story has a practical aim, the exposure of the faults of fashionable boarding-schools. "A good plot, and full of expectation," as Hotspur said; but the author had not the ability to execute the design. The satire and denunciation are both weak, and are not relieved by the introduction of a very silly and threadbare love-story.

* * * * *

Poems. By the Author of "John Halifax," "A Life for a Life," etc. Boston: Ticknor & Fields.

Some of the verses in this little volume are quite pretty, especially those entitled, "By the Alma River," "The Night before the Mowing," "My Christian Name," and "My Love Annie." Miss Muloch is not able to take any high rank as a poetess, and very sensibly does not try.

* * * * *

Title-Hunting. By E. L. LLEWELLYN, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.

This is a miraculously foolish book. Titled villains, impossible parvenus, abductions, and convents abound in its pages, and all are as stupid as they are improbable.



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Elements of Mechanics: For the Use of Colleges, Academies, and High Schools. By William G. Peck, M. A,, Professor of Mathematics, Columbia College. New York. Barnes & Burr. 12mo. pp. 338. $1.50.

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The National Fifth Reader: Containing a Treatise on Elocution; Exercises in Reading and Declamation; with Biographical Sketches and Copious Notes. Adapted to the Use of Students in English and American Literature. By Richard G. Parker, A.M., and J. Madison Watson. New York. Barnes & Burr. 12mo. pp. 600. $1.00.

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